A new tax bill working its way through Congress might change the way religious institutions can engage in politics.
President Donald Trump, at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, said, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
Now, a little history: The Johnson Amendment was passed in 1954 to prevent nonprofits from endorsing or opposing specific political candidates. It applies to 501(c)3 organizations which include most churches, schools, amateur sports leagues, and works of charity helping the poor or otherwise disadvantaged.
The Republican members of the House of Representatives are now writing Trump’s proposed changes into their big new tax overhaul.
The question arises whether churches should continue to follow Johnson’s rules if it is repealed? I think so.
Churches should stand strong on moral issues, but Church leaders should never endorse specific candidates for political office. The Catholic Church even includes staying out of political parties as a duty for priests in Canon Law (287.2).
John Beal’s commentary on this number in Canon Law notes the contingent nature of politics and how they can never give a fully adequate interpretation of the Gospel as reasons priests should stay at arm’s length from politics.
Beal notes that clerics can be members of political parties but are forbidden to take an active part. Thus, a priest can be a registered voter and vote in primaries but shouldn’t go knocking on doors or put a sign on his lawn.
Even though I come at this from a Catholic perspective, I think the same reasons to stay at arm’s length apply to Protestant ministers, rabbis, and imams.
I see at least three reasons why Churches shouldn’t endorse specific candidates as it alienates part of the congregation, makes them tacitly in support of immoral or questionable actions by that politician, and weakens their moral voice.
A quick point: The law prevents churches from endorsing candidates, but it does not prevent them from speaking out on moral issues, even if they are also political issues.
Unfortunately, some may have avoided speaking on moral issues also in the political debate out of fear of losing tax exempt status, but it was never intended to forbid a priest talking about the evil of abortion.
Even MSNBC argues “Ministries can obviously speak out on moral and spiritual issues of the day, and can even get involved in ballot referenda related to various policies.”
Political Endorsements Unnecessarily Divide Congregations
Imagine if you thought deeply about the issues facing your state, and judged with a well-formed conscience that candidate X was the best option primarily because they would improve public schools even though you’re worried they won’t treat the environment well.
Now, imagine on Sunday morning, in his homily the priest says that you should vote for candidate Y because of how they’ll protect the environment and minimizes the value of public schools.
You’d feel really alienated. If instead, the priest had simply talked about the importance of protecting the environment, you’d probably suspect he was voting for candidate Y but you could sympathize with them because you too were concerned with that, just not concerned enough to change your vote.
This is what happens to a sizable portion of almost any congregation when the church or the pastor endorses a candidate.
Of course, ministers should also focus more on strong moral issues, rather than those with a slight moral angle.
Political Endorsements Tacitly Approve Every Action of a Politician
As noted in Beal’s commentary, all politics is contingent and imperfect. All politicians make mistakes and often in very big ways: a politician may be great on domestic moral issues like abortion and euthanasia but be fine using torture on foreign nationals.
As a Church, we don’t want even tacitly to approve immoral acts. But if we say “Vote X” from the pulpit we are tacitly approving everything X does, including the immoral or questionable acts.
It is much easier for a layperson to separate themselves from acts they disagree with in someone they voted for as votes are often pragmatic. However, when the Church endorses a candidate, it is at least implicitly invoking its moral authority and not mere pragmatism.
Political Endorsements Weaken the Church’s Moral Authority
People look to the Church as a spiritual and moral authority. The moral plane is higher than the political plane, and if the Church picks sides in the divisive political plane, she will tend to become viewed more as an actor on that than on the moral plane.
Neither Donald Trump nor Bill Clinton has a great record of showing respect for women, yet individual pastors and Church leaders endorsed each of them. This reduced their moral authority. After such endorsements, a sermon on respecting women will inevitably seem hollow to some.
During the recent election cycle, I was attacked vehemently for being both a shill for Trump and a liberal Trump-hater. I consider it a badge of honor that both sides don’t like me on at least one issue. I stood my ground and stayed on a moral commentary, avoiding partisan politics.
After the election I got many messages of how people appreciated my moral voice, as many of the other religious leaders who are active on social media either endorsed a candidate or only provided moral commentary that supported one candidate or the other.
I was active in politics, working a phone and going door to door, before entering religious life, but had a very clear sense that I had to leave this realm. Giving up my membership card for a political party was part of the detachment I had to go through.
An Example of This Problem
My grandparents worked under a situation where the Church got too involved in politics, and that became a large part of the Church’s downfall in Quebec, Canada. From 1944 to 1960 Maurice Duplessis and the Union Nationale ruled Quebec with strong support from the Church. The times were good.
Duplessis agreed with the family values the Church teaches and gave the Church privileges. Priests would even repeat the party slogan: “Heaven is blue [Union Nationale’s color], Hell is red [the Liberal color].”
However, his government had corrupt patronage: In Shawinigan, my grandparents got a distinct sense that he would win anyway but reward the town with a bridge if they voted for him, while he’d veto it if they voted Liberal.
My grandmother died a Presbyterian and the political collusion of the Catholic Church in Quebec was part of the reason she never became Catholic like her husband.
Eventually, the Union Nationale fell from power. Soon after, Catholicism in Quebec rapidly declined in the Quiet Revolution, possibly the fastest and most profound secularization in human history not enforced at gunpoint.
Now it has by far the lowest Catholic Mass attendance rates in North America at 2-4 percent. We can’t blame this all on the Church’s involvement in politics but that was definitely a factor.
Today, Duplessis is viewed negatively by the vast majority of Quebecois, and historians argue he held Quebec back by having overly traditionalist policies.
Even though it worked for a while, the Church’s endorsement of one political leader ultimately came back to bite it. The last 150 years could provide us with many other examples.
Reducing the Church to one political party does untold damage. It guts her of her true role in the eyes of many. Thus, even if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, I strongly discourage priests or religious leaders from aligning strictly with one party.
At the same time, lay people should be active in politics in all aspects to have a Catholic worldview prevail in government.